Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Advent, 15 November 2015, by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Advent, 15 November 2015, by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

If your God is compassionate and merciful, how can you act with neither compassion nor mercy? The Dean reflects on religious violence.

Is it ever right to kill people in the name of your religion, in the name of God? Many people at most times in human history seem to have assumed that the answer to that question is yes.

Take our first reading from the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon makes a wonderful statute out of gold, a new god for people to worship, and demands that everyone bow down to his god on pain of death. And in the ancient world, in a way which we find it hard now to imagine, the ruler and the state and the divine all went together.

The state was divinised in the person of the king; to disobey the king was to disobey God and to be a traitor to your country. So Nebuchadnezzar was doing something normal: he was using religion as a tool for power.

That happened in ancient Israel too: but in Israel there was also a strong tradition of dissent in the name of God, the voices of the prophets who spoke against the pride of absolute rulers.

In the end the names and the messages of those prophetic challengers like Isaiah and Jeremiah were remembered in the Jewish scriptures; but most of them were killed for their audacity in challenging those in power.

And the early Christians were persecuted and killed because they wouldn’t worship the emperor as a god, even though they obeyed him as a ruler – and so they had to die.

And that tendency to make the ruler, the state and God identical and absolute has happened throughout history, from the armies of Islam and the Crusaders, to the wars of the Christian Reformation of the 16th century and the English Civil War about the divine right of kings, down to the imprisonment and abuse of conscientious objectors in the 20th century.

And now we see that absolutism in the supposedly religious ideology which underpins terrorist atrocities in support of an Islamic caliphate: most recently in the events of Friday night in Paris, and in bomb attacks the day before against Shia Muslims in Beirut and Baghdad, and many other such atrocities from sub-Saharan Africa to eastern Asia.

The driving forces behind this divinisation of politics are the desire for absolute certainty, and the lust for power. Certainty and power: which we see not only in ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but in dictators of every kind, whether heads of government, or leaders of groups such as Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army in East Africa, or extremist political groups of Right and Left.

Men shape an ideology out of people’s fears and beliefs, and use it to convince others to destroy those opposed to what they believe, to abuse and torture and kill while thinking that what they believe and do is beyond argument – they will be right and others will be wrong.

The story of Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel undermines such ideology. The context of the book of Daniel is one of persecution of the Jewish people, focused in this demand to give up their religious faith and bow to the power of the ruler.

Nebuchadnezzar has made his own god, this enormous golden statue, and demands that everyone else worship it.  

But here is hope and inspiration to those who suffer persecution: after all of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, anger and rage, and threats to throw them into a blazing oven if they refuse to co-operate, there is the glorious reply from the three men facing death:

‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to defend ourselves about this. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’

In other words – we won’t do what you want because it’s wrong, and whether God saves us or not doesn’t matter, because we will live and die for our God, and you can’t make us change our mind.

This isn’t about suicidal defiance: it’s about challenging the whole mind-set of absolute certainty. It’s a manifesto for diversity and difference; an affirmation that human beings can never have certainty in this life, and so should never impose their own certainty and lust for power on others.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be confident in what you believe. I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and I believe that he is the way to God and the one through whom God comes to us. I want to encourage and persuade you to join me in following Jesus, but as his disciple, following him not me.

But as Christians, or any other religious believer, we should never do violence to others; and my fellow-Christians who over the centuries have murdered pagans and Jews and Muslims in the name of Jesus have by doing so denied the name and way of the Jesus who they invoke.

In the same way, those who call themselves Muslims, but slaughter in the name of Islam those who think differently from them, are committing blasphemy against the God who the Quran refers to at the beginning of every chapter but one as the compassionate and merciful one. If you follow a God who is compassionate and merciful, how can you yourself treat others with neither compassion nor mercy?

The gunmen in Paris shouted out their manifesto as they shot people dead. It was not the Basmala, the Quranic words Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning ‘In the name of God, Compassionate and Merciful’ – for the gunmen showed no compassion or mercy.

Instead they shouted out the commonly used phrase Allahu akbar – ‘God is greater’. And they used that because the desire for greatness, for power, for my power over you, is what lies at the heart of what they were doing…

The story that Jesus tells in our second reading, about the wheat and the weeds growing together in the fields until the harvest time, is a picture of how God allows what is good and what is evil to be mixed up in this world, because they are so intertwined with each other – the world is complicated, diverse, different.

And if God’s wisdom means that God is patient and accepts difference, and if God doesn’t act like a dictator or genocidal bigot, then why does anyone think that they can justify acting like that in God’s name?

The point made by Jesus is much the same as the answer given to Nebuchadnezzar: those who put themselves in the place of God have no right to force others to do what they want. And Jesus tells us that judgement is not ours to make, but God’s, in God’s good time, for God’s justice; not to serve our own lust for power and certainty.

So what should we do? We should rejoice in the diversity and difference of the world, and that much of what we find different nonetheless has much good in it.

We should acknowledge that what we ourselves think and do will have evil as well as good mixed up in it, and we have to live with ambiguity and discomfort rather than certainty.

We should challenge, at cost to ourselves, all who put themselves in the place of God and claim that their certainty gives them power over the lives of others, and especially when they try to justify doing what they want by describing it as the will of God.

And we should pray for all who face persecution and death because they will not deny by word or deed the God of compassion and mercy.

As they said to Nebuchadnezzar: ‘If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us out of your hand, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known that we will not serve the gods that you have made.’